by Daniel Davis
When Sally came back from the neighbors' well, the man sitting at the head of the table was no longer her father.
He was about the same size, and even the same age, mid-thirties or so. But where her father was bearded, this man was clean-shaven, and had his dark hair slicked back. He had on a decent vest and shirt, though they were dirtied and torn a little. Same with his pants. His eyes were green and sharp, and Sally walked straight into them, like she would a wall. Her movement was arrested under that gaze; she came to a complete stop and stared, slack-jawed, the bucket of water almost falling from her hands.
She caught herself though, after a moment. They'd had guests in the past, though not many, and usually just family. But she knew the formalities. She closed the door and set the bucket down. Wiping sweat from her forehead, she said, "Sorry, mister. You took me by surprise is all."
He smiled. His teeth were white. "Sorry 'bout that, Sally."
She blushed. "I'm afraid I don't know your name, mister."
"You can call me Father."
He didn't look like a reverend. Too young, for one thing. And for another…well, he just didn't look like one.
She inclined her head to the back of the house. "My pa out back?"
"In a manner of speaking."
She glanced around the house. Nothing seemed much out of place. Except—no, there. The picture of her mother, taken just a few months before she died. Family portrait: Father, Mother, and Child. It had been knocked over. And yes, her father's ashtray was balanced on the edge of the table, a potential mess he would have taken great pains to avoid.
How long had she been gone? Thirty minutes? Their well had gone dry last week, but the Johnsons, a half-mile to the south, still had plenty of water. They weren't the best of people, but they lent out water at a moderate charge, because they didn't want to look bad in the public eye. Thirty minutes. Not much time for something to happen.
The man motioned to the chair opposite him. "Please sit. It's as much your house as it is mine."
Sally thought to say something to that, but the way he was smiling—almost daring her to—made her keep quiet. A smile like that could bite you if you weren't careful.
She walked around the bucket and sat down. She could hear the horse out front, complaining because she hadn't unhooked the cart yet. She could hear birds out back, arguing amongst themselves. But over it all she heard her own breath, low, heavy, wet. She could still feel the sun on her skin; she felt hot, itchy.
"How old are you?" the man said. "Fifteen? Sixteen?"
"Where's my pa?"
"Some place that's of no concern to you at the moment."
"If you hurt him, mister—"
He hadn't flinched. He hadn't shown any reaction at all. He just sat there, staring at her, his eyes a calm sea of green, like she'd always imagined the waters off Mexico to be. Deep, vast, peaceful.
Sally glanced around her. Her part of the table was bare; the silverware that had been set there before she left was gone. All she wore was a simple dress and shoes, nothing sharp or hard. She could try throwing the chair at him, but they were heavy chairs, and though she was confident that she could at least get it on the table, hefting it across would be another matter.
She had no weapons. The man had planned it that way.
He'd planned it.
"How you know my name?" she said.
"Well, that's what your pa called you, isn't it?"
"Yeah, but how you know?"
"The way I come to know most things: by listening."
"I want to talk to him."
"What makes you think he wants to talk to you?"
"He's my father."
Sally started to say something, but it came out in stammered syllables, and she shut her mouth. The man was nodding slightly, that damnable smile on his face. His cheeks, she saw, weren't as smooth as she'd thought; shaven, yes, but the skin was worn, not just cracked but crusted. The skin of his face looked, now that she was studying it, almost like the knuckles on the back of her father's hands.
His hair, too. Was that oil, or was it sweat or grease? It didn't look styled; at first she'd thought it was showy, like something she figured they did in the city. But she'd seen animal fat used much for much the same effect, by old ranch hands who wanted to look fancy. And his clothes, which were certainly those of a well-to-do man, hadn't been taken care of. He'd ridden hard in them, for days or even weeks. She could tell he'd washed—that shirt still had white spots on it—but he'd made no effort to mend the tears.
The only thing that was the same, the more she studied him, were his eyes. And they were the kind of eyes that didn't really tell you much about the person. They were eyes that could be controlled, that only let you see as much as their owner wanted. Her father's eyes had been kind, inviting. This man's eyes were deep but emotionless.
Where was her father? Out back, the man had said. But there was nothing out back except…the well.
"Is my father hurt?" she said.
The man shook his head. "No. I wouldn't say he's hurting."
"That's not what I asked."
"Very…what's the word I'm looking for? Haughty?"
"Astute. Yes. Clever." He nodded. "You've got some schooling. That's good. How much?"
"Few years. Before Ma died."
"And then you were needed here."
She realized, belatedly, that she'd given something away—several things, in fact, that she could've used to her advantage. Her education. Her mother. The fact that it was just her and her father. She'd never been one to haggle, though, or discuss anything that needed negotiation; her father had often laughed, lovingly, at her lack of argumentative skills. One of those things they can't teach you in school, he'd said.
The man gestured towards town without lifting his hands from the table. "Is it a good schoolhouse?"
"They teach you to read?"
"There are books in what I'm guessing is your room. Not the kind of material they'd give you at school."
In the half-hour she'd been gone, this man had most likely killed her father, rummaged around the house, and then set up this little scenario. Thirty minutes.
But he'd been listening in on their conversation previously. He must have. What had she and her father discussed? Did they mention their lack of guests? No, but her father had only put two sets of silverware on the table, and there clearly wasn't enough food in the cabin for more than two people per meal.
The man reached down into his lap and pulled up one of her books. Life of Jesse James. He flipped through the dirt-smeared pages, then stopped to stare at the masked outlaw on the cover. Shaking his head, he tossed the book into a corner, then looked at her and clucked his tongue.
"Mostly garbage such as that. If a girl can read, I say she should read the finer things. Although I did see a Shakespeare, did I not? Romeo and Juliet?"
"I don't think you'll truly appreciate Shakespeare until you read something such as Titus Andronicus or Hamlet. Those are misunderstood heroes. Not like…" He gestured at the fallen book.
"Can I talk with my father?" she asked.
"You can't if he's not here."
"No games, mister. I want to talk to my father."
"No games, Sally." He leaned forward. "We're not playing games. If this were a game, there would be the chance for you to win or lose. But you have already won or lost. You could say the game was played before I got here…that's something Shakespeare could teach you, I believe."
"Well…did I win or lose?"
"You tell me."
It had been her one burst of bravado, and it died limply against the steadfast glare of the man's eyes. She hung her head, at first trying to look more dejected than she felt, but then realizing she really did feel that way. Her hair fell down around her face, and she casually brushed it away, wishing she'd gotten her hair cut last month when her father had.
"Do that again," the man said.
Sally glanced up. "Huh?"
He pantomimed the gesture she'd just performed. "That."
"Oh." Biting back a smile, she tilted her head forward and brushed the hair back again, slower this time. Then she looked up from under her bangs at the man. His smile had widened a little.
"You never told me how old you were," he said.
She straightened again, pushing her chest out. It was a loose dress, and she didn't have much of a bust yet, but there was something there, and she wanted the man to stare at it.
He did. He bit his lip as he did so, looking for a good five or ten seconds, then his gaze drifted up and he said, "A fifteen-year-old-girl shouldn't go around looking like that. We need to cut your hair shorter, get some less gaudy clothes on you. It'll be tricky, though; a girl as pretty as yourself can make even the most haggard garment look glamorous."
Her shoulders sank. He caught her despair and shook his head slowly, almost embarrassed. "Sally. Please. I'm old enough to be your father."
"You're not my father."
"Do you mean that literally or symbolically?"
"I mean," he said, "do you mean I didn't sire you, or do you mean that I am not the same type of person your father was?"
Was. She almost didn't catch it. Her father was. Not is, not her father is, but was. Her father was a type of person.
What had happened to him, then? He was certainly dead—she figured that beyond a doubt now. Thrown down the well? Buried near the rock where all their pets had come to share a mass grave over the years? Had her father joined those pets in the same grave? Dear God, was her father buried like a dog, cut down like one and then buried like one?
The conflict must have shown on her face, because the man didn't wait for her to answer his question. Perhaps he realized he'd slipped up; or, more likely, he'd said it purposely to see how she would respond. Testing her, like he had with "haughty" and the Shakespeare.
Reaching across the table, he said, "Sally, you're right: I am not your father. I did not sire you, and from what I was able to tell, I am not the type of person he was, either. I am better. I promise you. You'll see. I'm better."
His fingers brushed her wrist. They were hard, calloused—a gunfighter's fingers, she was sure, used to gripping wood and iron and lead. Fingers used to clenching around a man's—or a girl's—throat, squeezing and tightening. Fingers that hadn't caressed since the cradle, fingers that had only known violence and hard work. Fingers that, as they slid across her wrist, seemed to seep into her, his vileness flowing from his fingertips into her veins. She jerked her wrist back, gasping, almost screaming. She clutched the wrist to her chest as though it were broken, and she pushed the chair back from the table and stood.
He pulled his arm back and sat watching her. Slowly, he said, "Sally. Sit down."
She remained standing for a moment. She wanted to shout at him that her father had been the better man, that this man here was nothing but scum and filth, like so many she'd seen in town, a brawler and a gambler and a murderer. Yet she didn't, partly because it wasn't true—this man wasn't a common bum, she could see that plain as day—and partly because she was afraid that, once she opened her mouth, she wouldn't be able to speak. Sally had never had much in the way of pride, or much to be proud about, but she didn't want to lose what little she had in front of this man, this man who had killed her father and taken his place.
No. Not taken his place. Taken his chair, maybe. But that was it.
Because she couldn't speak, Sally remained standing. And the longer she remained standing, the more she could see the man's eyes shifting. They didn't change all at once, nor did they change as much as she guessed they could. But they grew a little dimmer, the brilliant green giving way to something more akin to dying grass. Perhaps it was his smile, which was growing smaller and tighter, never quite reaching the level of a frown—here was a man who, through some ironic quirk of fate, could never truly frown—but still promising violence and blood. His face wasn't falling, it was caving in on itself, eroding one piece at a time. He was also drawing himself up straighter, so that, when he spoke again, his spine was parallel with the back of the chair.
Sally took her chair. Not to please him, but to please herself. The man's face softened again, grew to something resembling its former self, but wasn't there a touch of a smirk in his smile now? Something that said, I know what you're thinking, Sally, and you won't get away with it.
A few seconds passed in silence. The man's body relaxed again; Sally made a pretense of letting her shoulders slump, but her muscles remained as taught as ever. And she still clutched her wrist to her chest.
"I apologize for my tone," the man said, though there was no apology in his voice. "Discipline, though, is key. You'll find that in Shakespeare, too."
"I was hoping it wouldn't come to this," he said. "I admit I underestimated you. You're tough. I knew that, of course, and I liked it—still like it. But you're tougher than I thought." He gave her a chance to say something, but she didn't. He nodded as though she had, and said, "I suppose we have a few formalities to discuss, though I see no reason why we should discuss them as formalities." He stood and walked into the kitchen, taking a bottle of her father's whiskey from the top cabinet. Then he grabbed two glasses and brought them back to the table. He set one glass in front of her and poured in a small amount, then poured himself the same, and set the bottle between them. He returned to his seat and raised his glass.
It was all done so smoothly, so casually, as if he'd done the same thing in this house many times before, that Sally hadn't even thought to attempt an escape. It'd just seemed…natural.
The thought made her shiver. If the man noticed—and surely he did—he made no mention of it. Instead, with his glass raised, he said, "What should we toast to, Sally?"
She picked up her glass and stared at it. She tried to think of something to say—something Jesse James would spout in one of her novels—but nothing came to mind. She said, "Whiskey?"
"Whiskey." He seemed to think it over. "Yes. Yes, using whiskey to toast whiskey. There's something poetic in that, I suppose." He drank.
Sally swallowed the whiskey as fast as she could. It seared her throat on the way down, but she didn't cough or gag as much as she expected to. She'd drunk before, of course, but not often, and she hated the taste and feel of her father's whiskey. The man didn't seem to mind, though; he poured them both another shot. She took it quick, while he watched.
"Formalities," he said. "Or business, I suppose. First: the well. When did it go dry?"
Sally pushed the image of her father's body out of her mind. Or as well as she could, at least. "Last week. Most people around here have the same problem."
"But not the Johnsons."
"They're further down the valley. There's still water there."
"How much the Johnsons charge you for their water?"
Her father had given her the dollar. He'd never spoken the amount, though. So the man had been able to hear, but not see.
"Damn." The cuss was rural, guttural—spoken like a man who'd spent time in the country, with no one but other men (and not reputable men at that) for company. Another slip. Or maybe the man just saw no more need for pretense.
"A dollar," the man said. "For something they have plenty of."
"They don't have plenty of it. In a month or so, theirs will be gone as well."
His eyes drifted off her, and he was suddenly thinking to himself. Sally knew that here was another moment, she could turn and run. But the whiskey was starting to settle, first in her legs. They felt heavy and loose. And the man. He wasn't watching her, and yet she knew he was. She wouldn't even make it to the door.
"Say," he said. "You ever think about investing in real estate?"
"Real estate. Land. You ever thought of getting some new property?"
"You don't have water here, and the Johnsons have it at their place. Seems to me that's a good place to be."
"The Johnsons aren't selling."
"I wasn't talking about purchasing."
It took her a moment. When she realized what he was saying, she shook her head. Her vision swam under the combined influence of the movement and the whiskey, and when she spoke her voice had noticeably slurred, so much that she could hear it in just the one word: "No."
"The Johnsons don't sound like the best of folk, Sally. They charge a dollar for water, during a drought."
"They need the money."
"Won't do them a damn bit of good once their well runs out."
"But…" She closed her eyes. Mistake. Everything tumbled away from her; the motion was only in her mind, but she jerked backwards as she opened her eyes.
There was a moment of silence, both of them acknowledging what had just happened, one of them afraid, the other inscrutable. Then the man said, "We can discuss it later, if you'd like." He poured her a third shot; though he could've done it from his seat, he stood and walked around to her side of the table. Then he sat back down and waited until she'd grabbed her glass. He poured himself another shot as well, and said, "Let's have a real toast, Sally. Not to whiskey. What should we toast to?"
"Um…" She coughed, almost spilling the drink. "Water?"
"Thirsty, are we?" He laughed. It wasn't an unpleasant sound; kind of grating, but in an endearing way. The kind of laugh that's been around a while, that knows that most things are amusing and that the best you can do is laugh in the face of your troubles. Sally smiled as it replayed over and over in her mind. Then she pictured the well out back, her father's body lodged halfway down, and the smile disappeared. But the image of her father drifted away slowly, dissolving into an incoherent blackness that wasn't solid, that was in fact riddled with holes. And through those holes she could hear the man's laughter coming back, and she tried to mimic it as best she could. Her efforts were mild, almost on the scale of mockery, but they only encouraged the man to laugh more.
He snapped his fingers, and Sally drifted back. She'd spilled most of her drink, but neither she nor the man minded much. He said, "Let's toast to family. How does that sound, Sally?"
She nodded and drank. The man hesitated a moment, perhaps a bit flummoxed at her silence, or perhaps enjoying the show, then downed his drink and pounded the glass on the table.
"Well," he said. "Second order of business: what's for dinner?"
Sally shook her head. "What?"
"I see that I am to do the cooking this evening." The man wagged a finger, the movement exaggerated and slow. Sally's eyes followed the finger back and forth. "I'll grant you this favor tonight. But Sally, this is not to be a regular occurrence. I see in you a fine cook, and I intend to benefit from that cook as much as I am able."
She nodded. "Okay, mister."
"Sally, I told you. Call me Father."
"Okay, Father." She giggled.
The man cocked his head at her and smiled. He walked over beside her and ran a calloused hand across her cheek. His fingers hurt, and she closed her eyes against them, not even sure she felt the pain anymore.
Instead of falling away, everything leaped towards her, and she laid her head on the table. She heard footsteps walking away, distantly, but more immediate was the well out back, dry and dusty this past week. Something in the well called to her, not with a noise but with a presence. She felt for it, reached for it, but it drifted towards and past her, and she couldn't turn around to see it. Did it matter? What mattered? The wood pressed against her face? The burning sensation at the back of her throat? The whistling coming from the kitchen, the clang of pots and pans?
Sally let it go. She let the well and the thing inside drift beyond her reach. She rested her head against the table, whispering over and over, giggling at first but her voice growing fainter, into a whisper, until all that was left in her voice was the distant reverence of a prayer: "Father. Father."